Mark Bridges is an Oscar-winning costume designer who has worked on Deep Blue Sea (1999), 8 Mile (2002), The Italian Job (2003), I Heart Huckabees (2004), Be Cool (2005), The Fighter (2010), The Artist (2011), Fifty Shades of Grey (2015), Marriage Story (2019) and Joker (2019).

He is best-known for his recurring collaborations with Paul Thomas Anderson and he has designed the costumes for all of his films, from Hard Eight (1996) through to Phantom Thread (2017).

News of the World stars Tom Hanks as an ex-Civil War soldier turned newsreader (Captain Kidd) and Helena Zengel as a twice-orphaned child (Johanna). Kidd must help Johanna find the only remining family she has. It is directed by Paul Greengrass, who Mark Bridges has worked with twice before, on Captain Phillips (2013) and Jason Bourne (2016). We discussed Westerns, the contrast between Kidd’s day and evening outfits, Johanna’s dress and shawl and squeezed in a sneaky question about PTA…

I really enjoyed News of the World, despite not usually being a Western girl!

Thanks, I’m not usually a Western guy, either! To tell you the truth, when I read it, I didn’t even think of it like “oh we’re doing a Western.” My idea was just to tell this interpersonal, beautiful story and not think about the shoot-em-ups or whatever that I guess characterise a Western.

So, why did you want to be involved, was it primarily Paul Greengrass?

I would say so, yes. At this point in my career, I’ve done a lot of different kinds of movies so what keeps it fresh is changing genres a lot. The guy who brought you Phantom Thread brought you Joker brought you News of the World, you know? That gets me out of bed every morning, to try something new. And of course, I love working with Paul, he’s just the ideal director to collaborate with because he lets you do your thing, but he also really guides the ship in such a way that it’s truly his vision. That’s what I’m there for, is to make his vision come to life. So, it was a combination of those two things and then of course, the appeal of shooting in Santa Fe – it just appealed to me and being able to do that period as well, the 1870s, I had not done anything like that. So all of that really made me excited about the project.

I guess the closest you’d come to doing a Western before was There Will Be Blood, but that’s obviously a different time period. So was there anything you could bring from that experience or was it totally different?

I think there’s a practical aspect of working in Texas in There Will Be Blood to working on these ranch sets in the Santa Fe area. There’s a kind of ruggedness, you have to prepare for the inevitable afternoon dust storm, you need good hat protection. So there’s the practical aspects of the ruggedness of something like There Will Be Blood and News of the World, so I think that prepared me. And you know, I love men’s hats, so I learned from There Will Be Blood how important a hat is for speaking volumes about a character.

The film opens with Captain Kidd (Tom Hanks) getting dressed into his evening outfit that he reads the news in and there’s something ritualistic about it, as if he’s a priest preparing for a sermon. Why do you think it was important to show that right at the start, as an establishing character moment?

I think it’s so brilliant that that is how Paul decided to start the movie because it immediately draws you in and you’re curious about this character. Between the garments and the fastidiousness of him checking himself and things like that, you’re immediately like ” who is this guy? what is going on?” I love it because a lot of time and thought went into those different pieces – what’s the shape of the tie, what’s the shape of the collar, what fabric are we going to do?

I ended up doing a silk for that shirt because I thought it’s his special clothes, it’s essentially like his Sunday Best. So I thought about how he would present himself – it was a good shirt fifteen years ago but it’s been in a saddle pack for the last five, you know what I mean? So it was just trying to say all that in just a few minutes.

And then here we have this man and then he presents his reading. Then we see him in his day-to-day wear and there’s a contrast to that, so immediately you understand that that is some kind of performance and he’s a very different person in real life.

Johanna (Helena Zengel) only really wears two things during the course of the film…

She has three! We have that little tag-on at the end! There’s a funny story with that one too. But yes, she wears pretty much two things.

So there’s the hide that she’s initially found in and then the dress that she’s forced into wearing. How did you decide on what that dress would be – the one that she spends the majority of the film in?

Basically, I looked at a lot of photographs of children from that period and there really is a through-line to children’s clothes at that time. Especially at this age, I think Helena was 11. It really is that flat gathered bodice, a sewn-in waistband, where the shoulder-seam meets, the amount of gathers. And one detail that I really loved is that for practical reasons, you would put a set of tucks at the bottom of the skirt, so that as the child grew, you could lengthen it, so we did that little detail.

Also, I wanted to choose a fabric that was kind of there but wasn’t there, had some interest in the close-ups, but made sense for Civil War times. I think it worked out beautifully, graphically out in nature against the browns of the hills and the greens, your eyes go to her and your eyes go to Tom for a more textural reason – his volume, his hat, his coat – so they balanced each other quite well visually, as well of course, in their performances.

Johanna has a shawl/blanket that she’s attached to because it’s something that’s familiar to her (from the Kiowa tribe she has been living with). What kind of research did you do into this piece?

Yeah, there’s an interesting story behind that because in the Paulette Jiles novel, they talk about a poncho that Kidd has in his truck. And if a character was going to wear it, then I was going to be in charge of that. So we actually found a place to weave them for us in Mexico and then of course aged them appropriately. But it’s originally in the book that this piece of clothing is what they used, either for her to hide under when they arrive in Dallas or for some of the cold cold nights on their travels.

So I thought it was a cool piece to have and very important, especially since it is mentioned several times in the original novel. I just brought it myself from the novel, it wasn’t something that Paul spoke about, but he readily accepted it because we were always trying to figure out “what do they have with them? how are they surviving in such a hand-to-mouth way?” So that made a lot of sense because it was very useful, whether they slept on it, wore it.

I think we had two made just in case! There is a little blanket that she wears into town when they come into Red River, I think, it’s sort of a brown and red. That was a beautiful antique that I found on Etsy. It’s just a great little shot of colour there when they’re coming in. You just never know where you’re going to find the piece or find the inspiration for a moment in the film.

Towards the end, we see an isolated German community. Are there any subtle differences in their costuming compared to the rest of the Texans?

Oh, yeah. Each town we were in, I tried to give them a little different character, whether they feel more like a farming community or Dallas felt a little bit more urban, as urban as 1870s Dallas would be. And then we did San Antonio with a little more of a South of the Border feel to it. For the German people, I looked at some farm paintings from the Alsace region. Beautiful genre paintings of farmers and things and I based them on that. Just trying to specifically make them look different to the rest of the movie because they were a tight-knit community. I think Paul was interested in giving a sense that there were immigrants coming to America and trying to settle and trying to make a home, just as there are today. So I did research into mid-19th century peasants and then built accordingly.

Just one question that is slightly off-topic, if I’m allowed: You have worked on all of Paul Thomas Anderson’s films – what makes it such a successful partnership and why has it lasted so long?

You know, I ask myself that all the time! You know, he was a first-time director when we started out and I really admire him, I think he’s so intelligent, the way that he writes things, or his vision. He writes in such a way, I don’t know if you’ve ever seen any of his scripts, that there’s quite a broad chance for interpretation. So I get very excited about “ooh how could we play this?” He loves research, I love research, we love that period of the film working together and then how it can come to fruition. That whole process he’s very into and so am I.

I wouldn’t say we have a short-hand at all, because as you know, his films are so different, from one to the next, which has been great for me. But it all comes from his brain so I can say “we can play this a couple of different ways” and his instincts are unfailingly right-on. I think he enjoys what I bring to him, but I also have a lot of respect for him, in knowing that however he should want to play this, that’s really right. I’ve looked back on a lot of scenes in films that we’ve done and I’ve thought “he was right about that.” I’m just so proud to have been a part of all those films and to be able to contribute to those really masterful films that he’s done.

News of the World is available on Netflix in the UK and on PVOD in the US.

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